George Will has long been the most exceptional ideologue when it comes to sports. He returned to the topic in a recent column on the NBA lockout, which pits millionaire players against millionaire owners. Not only are the players superior athletes, but in Will's opinion they're better labor activists than most working stiffs, because "they are ferocious competitors who loathe losing at anything." The owners, meanwhile, have the advantages of time and deep pockets. Will takes no side in their conflict, and seems to find it an amusing spectacle. What really interests him is the occasion of the conflict: a redistribution or outright sharing of the wealth each team generates. A policy intolerable in other contexts is imperative in professional team sports, Will writes. Here's why:
Sports leagues must accommodate two competing imperatives. The leagues must encourage the entrepreneurial pursuit of excellence, meaning superiority, by each individual franchise. But the leagues are selling entertainment, which requires competitive balance. A perennial problem is that teams’ cities vary as sports markets, so teams’ resources do, too. The NFL, which gets so much of its revenue from national television contracts, distributes this to its teams in equal portions, so a team in a small city in northern Wisconsin can compete with New York teams. But recently, the small-market San Antonio Spurs won four NBA championships in nine years. In Major League Baseball, whose economic model of largely local revenue developed before the invention of broadcasting (or the internal combustion engine), huge disparities of local broadcast revenue tilt the playing field against small-market teams. These disparities have been mitigated by revenue sharing. In baseball and basketball, negotiations usually involve three, not two, sides — the players, the richest teams’ owners and the other owners. All their futures are bright.
Entertainment requires not just competitive balance, but revenue sharing among the franchises of the major sports leagues. Under normal free-market rules, the small-market teams would have to fail or fold, but in sports they are, if not too big to fail, they're too something -- a something that entitles them to survive through sacrifices by the richer, stronger teams. That entitlement is based upon the entertainment value of competitiveness and the corollary entertainment value of fairness. The entire league, implicitly, is not worth watching if one team has no true chance to beat another. To make sure people watch, every team has to be given a chance to win, whether through inversely ranked drafts that allow the weakest teams to pick the best college players or through revenue sharing deals that allow every team to bid competitively for veteran free agents. If you are a professional sports team, you have to be treated fairly and given breaks you don't necessarily deserve in order to be presentable and hold up your end of the collective endeavor. Sports leagues may be the ideal form of free-market capitalism because they are compacts of competitors committed to perpetual competition -- to competition without losers, without extinction. But if you follow the logic of the reasoning here, you might get a better idea of why so many ordinary slobs try to be famous. It'd seem that once people have a stake in seeing you, everyone has to treat you right. If that's so, maybe Andy Warhol was the great utopian thinker of our time, since were we all famous, we'd all be set for life. For now, most of us seem pretty expendable, but maybe the remedy is to become part of something other people feel a need for, like a sports league -- however silly that sounds. For the working class, how hard can that be?